Uncovering The Olive In Our Wine Country

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Article by Gabrielle Leonhard O’Connell: Olive Oil Educator and Producer, Gabrielle Collection

Olive Oil Napa SpotlightIn the early days of the internet, I established a website called Napa Style to share the lifestyle of Napa Valley. Little did I know that I was embarking on a journey to uncover olive history in California and become a life-long enthusiast of everything olive!

Olive oil has a long history in Napa Valley. In the 1800’s, an entrepreneurial group created a nursery in Soda Canyon to supply farmers with imported fruit stock, including a wide range of olive trees, to plant orchards in Napa Valley. They thought the valley would be a great place for agriculture. They were dead on! The reason we have a diversity of olive varietals still growing in the Napa Valley today is in part due to this agricultural enterprise in the 1800’s.

Fast forward to the 1990’s. The late Lila Jager, a friend and founding member the California Olive Oil Council in the 1990’s, shred her story of deciding to mill the olives from her trees to keep them from falling onto the picnic grounds at Rutherford Hill Winery. Upon research, she discovered they were Nevadillo (Spanish origin), Lucques (French origin) and Redding Picholine (Morocco/US- origin; in research) and were over 100 years old. The source was most likely from the local nursery. I also toured Longmeadow Ranch Winery with Ted Hall, Vintner, to see his restored olive grove dating to the 1870’s hidden by dense forest until Ted discovered the grove in the 1990’s. Today it is the source of Prato Lungo (Italian for Long Meadow) Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The efforts of reclaiming olive trees from overgrown forests throughout the wine country was the catalyst of olive oil resurgence in California. And what happens in California is often spreads beyond its borders. Olive oil was reborn!

Now, I had to explore the first olive in California: the Mission olive. For years, I searched for a Mission olive grove dating to the California Mission era. I found one! It was planted by Native Americans to supply the needs of the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc California. Olive oil was used by the Catholic Church and in mission life for religious rites, food preparation, to treat wounds and oil machinery. A DNA test proved these trees to be a perfect match to the first olive trees planted in the mid 1500’s at the first Mission in Loretto in Baja California. The trees traveled from mission to mission up the west coast, over a 200-year period; then later into Napa Valley (propagated from Mission’s trees).

The Mission variety is listed as the only olive cultivar from the United States in the World Catalogue of Olive Varieties. Few Californian’s know the history of their own olive variety! We have many more stories to share, so if you are an olive lover, stop by our tasting room at Gabrielle Collection Taste +.

NOTE:  This article originally appeared in Napa Spotlight Magazine.